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Delivery robots will redefine the meaning of every object they transport

We are increasingly surrounded by boxes. A new online purchase arrives on the doorsteps of one-third of American consumers each week. The volume of packages express-shipped by Amazon (more than 5 billion deliveries in 2017) shares an order of magnitude with the earth’s population (approximately 7.4 billion people). Look around your immediate surroundings and you might see the curved logo from one of the company’s boxes smiling at you now.

This tide of packages is unlikely to recede. Technology giants with multibillion-dollar research budgets are working to further embed our everyday lives within an ecosystem of accumulation, assuring that those packages will keep coming. Amazon engineers, hoping to use robots to address the “last mile problem” of transporting packages between warehouses and individual consumers, have contemplated such solutions as parachuting boxes from drones. A company called Starship has already begun testing small sidewalk-traveling delivery robots in some urban areas. But robots won’t just be on the road or in the sky. As boxes pile up beyond the anticipated capacities of apartment-building mail rooms, a few high-end properties are now experimenting with robotic systems to shuttle incoming deliveries to residents or store an owner’s existing possessions. Amazon has imagined a system that sends a robot out from each house to meet a delivery truck. Industry predictions suggest that robots could eventually be able to grasp and move objects within a household — one potential example, a towel-folding robot, has already been exhibited as a prototype. By the time that delivery robots begin arriving at your home, your residence might already be operating as an automated warehouse in its own right.

The express arrival of any object missing from your life with a minimum of effort could make it increasingly possible to live as though you already own everything

Automated vehicles for freight have not yet garnered the scrutiny that those for human passengers have, but their influence on everyday life could be just as dramatic. Given that robots can move through space in uniquely nonhuman ways, they wouldn’t necessarily be subject to boundaries between private and public spaces that constrain delivery people, allowing them to move goods in and out of homes in a constant flow. Amazon already has its “smart” lock system allow human carriers to enter a home briefly to drop off packages, and Wal-Mart is testing a similar system that lets its workers deliver groceries to a home’s refrigerator. But fully automated robots could travel deeper into homes without compromising privacy. You wouldn’t need to get dressed to greet a robot, if you noticed its arrival at all. It might unobtrusively enter and leave through an opening the size of a pet door.

Capitalist markets have long compelled consumers to buy as isolated households and fill their homes with new cycles of disposable goods. But emergent online shopping behavior suggests a latent consumer desire to circulate goods out of as well as into homes. E-commerce initially grew on the promise of easy returns of merchandise purchased sight-unseen, and it has become common to order multiple items at once under the assumption that some will be returned. Mainstream classified ad and auction websites are nearly as old as those selling new goods, and new improvised alternatives to the traditional garage sale are still emerging; some eBay sellers offer “mystery boxes” to get rid of unwanted goods, and websites and apps for reselling clothing are also growing rapidly. Facebook recently introduced a dedicated Marketplace platform to accommodate the 450 million users who had unofficially repurposed the site to sell and exchange items on their own. The TV revival of decluttering guru Marie Kondo, too, points to a widespread desire to reduce hoarding and continually re-evaluate which goods we consider essential.

The tendency for more boxes to enter our homes than to leave, then, may be caused in part by technical constraints rather than an endless desire to accumulate more stuff. Returning items remains relatively cumbersome, and a delivery can’t be undone with the same single button-push that brought it there. The additional labor involved creates a noticeable disincentive: 55 percent of online shoppers in an NPR survey reported keeping an unwanted purchase because of the inconveniences involved in returning it. Current “smart” door locks allow delivery workers to deposit packages directly inside homes, but their software does not yet facilitate picking up returns.

If the arrival of automated delivery robots could lower the effort to sell or return goods to the minimal amount it now takes to buy them, users might exchange products through a new kind of logistical network that would make the process of acquiring and trading physical objects as frictionless as that of downloading and deleting digital files. Users might trade products among themselves through new kinds of logistical networks — a kind of peer-to-peer sharing for physical objects.

Just as Airbnb was launched with the initial promise (if not always the lasting result) of transforming underutilized apartments and homes into decentralized competition for hotel rooms, a robot delivery system could turn every home effectively into a warehouse of objects offered for rent or sale. Items robotically transferred from one home to another might not need to pass through any central distribution facility; the system could potentially resemble a torrenting network, only one that was not reliant on “pirated” materials. The ability to request the express arrival of any object missing from your life with a minimum of effort could make it increasingly possible to live as though you already own everything. That is to say, ownership might become an irrelevant consideration in comparison to the availability of abundant options for short-term consumption like those already offered by media streaming services. Once the home becomes seamlessly integrated as an appendage of fulfillment infrastructure, the activity of making shopping decisions might recede from our consciousness altogether.

The inside of the home has already long been commercialized. The advent of Alexa-like devices to monitor interior spaces for shopping impulses merely extends an ongoing trend. As Jonathan Crary argued in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, television commercials introduced an unprecedented extension of consumer culture into the life of the home. Domestic space began to transition from a sanctuary for private, personal thought into another location for consuming shared public culture. Some of Levittown’s prototypical suburban homes in the mid-20th century came with television screens already built into their interior walls, through which residents could see ads that would remind them of the impending obsolescence of the stuff they already possessed.

Delivery robots in the 21st century may allow mass consumption to be replaced with mass distribution

Today, different sorts of shopping interfaces are embedding themselves into personal space. Amazon Dash, a one-click purchasing button for reordering a particular brand of product, seeks to bypass consumer decision-making and even to pre-empt influence from advertising; instead it solidifies brand allegiance as nonconscious, a part of a home’s physical fabric. Some machines, too, are being designed to automatically reorder their own supplies — detergent refills for washing machines, or ink cartridges for printers. Consumer behavior itself can now feel more automated: a user placing an order by pressing an embedded button or using a listening device such as an Amazon Echo must already know what he or she wants to buy, recalling existing memories of familiar brands with limited opportunities to compare current prices (or check their prices at all, as Ian Bogost noted about usage of the Amazon Dash button in an Atlantic column), or evaluate competing alternatives. Such automation of consumer behavior might diminish the centrality of branded goods to our sense of identity; brand loyalty mandated by a Dash button carries less weight than it might have when it was formed through an emotional connection.

Other forms of retail may now be encountering a comparable existential crisis to the one which digital access previously brought to the music and movie industries. A “retail apocalypse,” which is still unfolding, has decimated the malls that once served as public social spaces: 2017’s record number of store closures (approximately 7,795 were announced) was followed by another record of 145 million square feet of retail space being abandoned last year. Buying online reshapes shopping’s physical and spatial demands; it simplifies shopping into an act of flicking through screens, scrolling, and pressing buttons with no more immediate consequences than would be experienced while playing a mobile game. Minor physical annoyances that might have once subtly discouraged excess spending — such as the burden of carrying multiple items through stores — have been replaced with an interface that feels the same regardless of the quantities you buy.

Consumption may now be taking on a different role within our broader culture. The same young people who no longer hang out at malls may lose their desire to shop for objects altogether. Younger consumers are now presumed to be more interested in spending on experiences rather than things (at least according to the findings of one widely quoted Eventbrite-funded survey) and to be more interested in “access” to objects over owning them (a trend particularly associated with reduced homeownership rates). While a 2017 analysis by Deloitte found that decreased consumer spending was more likely to be correlated with rising health-care costs rather than consumers’ “rushing to experience,” the enduring popularity of the hypothesis may be related to its apparent explanatory power — how well it seems to address anxieties about how our society and economy are evolving. An editorial last year by libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, for instance, expressed concerns that subscription-based alternatives to ownership could undermine “traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.”

While U.S. society may be losing sight of such romantic aspirations as, in Cowen’s words, “the great American teenage dream … to own your own car,” other methods of property distribution have been portrayed as offering their own desirable incentives. App-driven experiments in the so-called sharing economy already offer subscription-based access to everything from clothing to furniture to cars. Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase described her company’s model to NPR as meaning “that I can choose a car exactly for that particular trip. I can take a BMW when I’m seeing clients. I can drive my Toyota Element [sic] when I want to go on that surfing trip.” In an idealized “sharing economy,” a user’s identity would become more fluid. The commitment once involved in establishing one particular persona through specific expensive purchases could be replaced by a menu of freely interchangeable surface-level impressions, like those of an internet user posting comments under multiple different avatars. Digital purchases, too, are becoming easier to make on a whim, making it trivial to digress from an existing taste palette.

Those systems now being developed to further streamline online shopping could also become the infrastructure supporting a post-possession existence. The more fully shipping logistics can be automated, the more delivery boxes can become like digital files. Automated circulation of objects with robots could make accessing them similar to downloads, completing a logic already suggested by our current shopping interfaces’ aspiration to become effortless.

Just as factory-floor robots during the second half of the 20th century undermined the logic of robust manufacturing wages fueling mass consumerism, delivery robots in the 21st century may reduce consumer demand from the other direction, allowing mass consumption to be replaced with mass distribution. This would render present-day cultural distinctions between “new” and “used” objects a matter of the same indifference now perceived toward sleeping in hotel beds or eating off restaurant cutlery. Some of the environmental footprint involved in moving those objects around could be partly offset if their movement kept them from being discarded or prevented replacements from needing to be produced in the first place. Every new product released into the market would compete on more comparable footing against the long tail of the remaining supply of every object that had been produced before.

Life within a world of constantly circulating goods could make their physical presence more closely resemble the persistence of the refreshing screen

Once robotic distribution renders identical instances of the same mass-produced design broadly interchangeable, one would no longer need to maintain the same specific possessions over time. Every mechanically reproducible object would effectively be multiplied again as multiple users coordinated their use of it during different time periods. While startups such as Omni and Tulerie are already experimenting with offering peer-to-peer lending of physical objects delivered through courier services or the mail, automated distribution methods that reduce the labor needed to ship them could render such rentals more affordable while making the act of renting itself feel less unusual and more commonplace.

Each use of an object might involve a micro-transaction, while the remaining owners of objects might earn passive income every time they were loaned out to others. A robot would bring some version of the desired object when it was needed, regardless of whether it was the same one. If that process happened seamlessly enough, each household would experience its access as being functionally equivalent to ownership, though in practice it would be the result of a constant process of buying, selling, and renting of objects as needed.

New avenues of delivery could be coordinated through algorithmic curation to manage the efficient distribution of objects and shape the tastes of their recipients. Amazon already sells a connected camera, the Echo Look, which offers users fashion advice about their photographed outfits, while streaming services, as Drew Austin has argued, may already be encouraging generic sets of tastes and preferences. Where everyone is catered to algorithmically, trends would lose their value as a social signal. An inoffensive baseline level of taste and cultural capital (such as might be illustrated by Kyle Chayka’s description of a generic upscale global aesthetic condition called “AirSpace”) might become easier for everyone to approximate, more likely to become a mandatory expectation while meaning less as a result.

Established habits of brand loyalty that once indirectly helped automate consumer decision-making might become less relevant once shopping becomes literally automatic. The panoply of generic brands and products available through Amazon’s standard shopping interface already points to this. Brands that remain relevant would likely be good at maintaining and updating their circulating products rather than inventing them.

Homes would no longer need cabinets or closets or washers; dirty goods would flow out of the home after being used, and clean ones would flow in as they were needed. Items which you weren’t immediately handling could vanish and appear from your shelves like content refreshing on a screen. “Shopping” could become as frictionless as organizing the objects you already own or liking their pixelated representations on social media. Objects would travel in and out of our homes buying and selling themselves without us paying attention, a constant background hum of automated commercial activity as we eat and sleep and work.

We might still remain attached to a few personally important objects in the same way that some people still buy hard copies of vinyl records in addition to streaming their music. In some cases robotic distribution might make it easier to retrieve more old, unique objects than might be found in current standardized production. But more mundane categories of products could occupy less permanent positions in our households, their commodified exchangeability transformed into an endless robotic dance across a geographic map.

Our experiences with the objects we own would be perceived differently. The industrial designer Richard Sapper once evoked a child’s teddy bear as a metaphor for the personal attachment we may feel towards certain favorite possessions, but the children who played with Beanie Babies interacted with both a soft, cute toy and the idea of its collectability on a market. Licensed merchandising similarly extended childhood relationships with consumerism beyond the range of the screens on which their connected media franchises first appeared. Future generations that grow up amid a network of constant, automated consumption will likewise modify their behaviors in response to it.

If the development of such a network followed the path of the internet’s historical emergence, anticipatory utopian overtones might eventually yield to corporate centralization. Within your own living space, robots might bring into tempting proximity objects that you haven’t yet paid to use, like those now sold within hotel room refrigerators — an approximation of pop-up ads in space. The ability to automatically exchange items within the home might accelerate the logic behind the internet of things, by which objects become no longer ownable but are sold as a renewable service. As the ongoing value of an object would be less about personal attachment than its history of use by other people, objects specifically engineered to endure higher rates of shared usage might become less affordable to purchase as an individual consumer. In the worst-case scenario a few large companies might seem to own almost everything, with everybody becoming their dependents.

Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz, writing in The End of Ownership, outlined the external control that corporations are already beginning to exert over media products, as when Amazon recalled digital copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles over a licensing issue. Consumers might experience those forms of external manipulation more positively, however, if it kept their possessions current, flexible to organize, and increasingly personalized. Instances where a company suddenly made some circulating goods unavailable for its own reasons wouldn’t feel much different from a decision to cease new production, or from the moment when an online platform unilaterally redesigns an interface millions depend on. After some initial outcry those types of controversies usually muffle into acquiescence.

The automation of physical space may take away the consistent reassurances which our belongings have traditionally given us, just as many of our hours may seem to have already been “lost” while staring at illuminated rectangles. Life within a world of constantly circulating goods could make their physical presence more closely resemble the persistence of the refreshing screen. But that change may only make the kinds of hands-on experiences which we tend to already seek and share on social media seem even more reassuring. The experience of watching a plant grow or a candle burn down with the passage of time might leave a more vivid memory than we can now possibly imagine, if our things themselves begin to seem less real in a world where they no longer collect any dust.

Chenoe Hart is an architectural designer in cyberspace.